Assemblyman John F. McKeon (Essex\Morris), the lead Assembly sponsor of the measure to designate the last week of September as 'Jersey Fresh Farm to School Week,' celebrated the initiative with more than 100 fifth graders and Principal Mark Quiles at 'Strawberry Fields,' the school garden of Seth Boyden Demonstration School located at 274 Boyden Avenue in Maplewood.
They were joined by Assemblywoman Mila M. Jasey (Essex\Morris), New Jersey Farm to School Network Director Beth Feehan, president of the school’s Parent Teacher Association (PTA) Susie Adamson, several garden parent volunteers including Virginia Lamb who is also an environmental educator, and Lorraine Gibbons, one of the parents who helped start the garden 12 years ago.
The measure (A-2854) that was signed into law in January 2011, dedicates the last week in September to promoting the value and importance of New Jersey’s agriculture and fresh farm foods including Jersey Fresh fruits and vegetables in schools, and to cultivating healthier food choices for children. A growing number of schools like Seth Boyden are also including gardens into their curriculum.
As they stood in the middle of Strawberry Fields, McKeon engaged fifth graders with a presentation on the importance of Jersey Fresh.
“What we are doing here by growing fruits and vegetables and eating more nutritious Jersey Fresh produce is cultivating healthier food choices and helping our state’s farming industry, which generated about $1.12 billion in annual revenue for the economy in 2011,” McKeon told the fifth graders.
The lawmaker went through the list of nine fruits and vegetables in which New Jersey is among the top 10 producers in the nation. These include cranberries, blueberries, peaches, tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers, snap beans, spinach and squash.
“There are an estimated 10,300 farms in our state that grow about 100 varieties of Jersey Fresh produce,” McKeon added, noting that food and agriculture are the state’s third largest industry, next to pharmaceuticals and tourism.
In his remarks, Principal Mark Quiles told the students that the Jersey Fresh Farm to School Week was established to focus attention on the state’s Farm to School Program, which connects schools to local farmers, and encourages more nutritious meals in schools.
"Strawberry Fields was started 12 years ago with tremendous support from the PTA as a way to enhance the learning experience of students. It provides an opportunity for students to experience discovery and reflection in a tangible way as they interact with nature. Our gardens provide a means of engaging students with outdoor learning, which is in keeping with the school's philosophy of multiple intelligences, that children are and grow smart in many different ways," Quiles said.
There are more than 30 Jersey Fresh items that students grow in the garden year-round. These include apples, herbs, cucumbers, beans, okra, kale, chard, collards, carrots, turnips, radishes, beets, lettuce, spinach and arugula.
Strawberry Fields is named in honor of inventor and industrialist Seth Boyden, who owned the original property on which the school is built, and cultivated the modern strawberry. After retirement, Boyden spent his time hybridizing strawberries and in fact, many of the strawberries we eat today originate from the seeds of his garden.
"School gardens are an integral part of teaching children about the natural world through hands-on, skill building learning," Feehan said. "Through a statewide contest and survey this year, we have counted more than 240 school gardens and know that there may be more out there. In addition to having a wide range of local produce, New Jersey is truly the School Garden State of the year."
Strawberry Fields was among the top 20 finalists in the inaugural 'School Garden of the Year' award from the NJ Farm to School Network and Edible Jersey. 165 entries were received for the statewide contest that was won by Eugene A. Tighe Middle School and William H. Ross Elementary School in Margate City.
During the Jersey Fresh Farm to School Week event, Jasey and McKeon presented Feehan and Quiles with a joint legislative resolution honoring the state's Farm to School Network and Seth Boyden.
“Today’s celebration is special to me for several reasons. The concept of an elementary school using Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences approach to learning began when I was on the Board of Education, following which my daughter taught at Seth Boyden for six years. I have continued to follow the work of teachers, administrators and parents to make the school a place where children love to learn,” Jasey (D-Essex\Morris) said. “The garden and outdoor space enhance the learning inside the classrooms and are together responsible for distinguishing Seth Boyden as a leader in education.”
Feehan recognized McKeon for sponsoring the Jersey Fresh Farm to School Week legislation. She presented him with a plaque that includes a pitchfork and a spade.
"The New Jersey Farm to School Network is honored to salute Assemblyman John McKeon for the legislation that he introduced which has become Jersey Fresh Farm to School Week. This annual event will allow schools to highlight the agricultural producers in our state every year and to show school children why New Jersey was named the Garden State. It will teach them about eating healthy and supporting our state's farmers," Feehan said.
“Beth Feehan has been a driving force in promoting the state’s agricultural fare and local farmers, as well as in supporting policies to improve school meals and encourage school gardens,” McKeon said as he accepted the award. “It has been a pleasure working with her to promote Jersey Fresh.”
The event at Seth Boyden also featured garden related educational activities as well as tastings of local and seasonal produce. Alstede Farms and Stony Hills Farms & Garden donated more than 60 lbs of apples and vegetables for the children.